Clowns are scary. Of course they’re scary. That’s the point of them.
The traditional clown terrifies as much as he entertains – or, more exactly, he entertains by terror.
The clown’s an outsider. The ancient Romans knew him as the fossor (literally, a digger or labourer). In other traditions, he’s a bumpkin, a rustic, simpleton. Emmett Kelly – the father of contemporary American clowning – based his ‘Weary Willy’ character on a hobo, one of the unemployed of the Great Depression.
Whatever his origins, the clown can’t behave – and the mayhem he unleashes necessarily unsettles the established order.
His subversion’s innately physical. The clown represents, Bakhtin says, the transfer ‘of every high ceremonial gesture or ritual to the material sphere’.
That’s why the clown’s such a bodily presence, with big shoes and a red nose and pants that won’t stay up.
It’s also why violence – the most obvious form of the triumph of the physical over the immaterial – follows him wherever he goes.
Think of Joseph Grimaldi, the actor who established the traditions of English clowning (pioneering, for instance, the white makeup that we now take for granted).
In 1813, the Times described the punishing regime Grimaldi endured for his art. ‘Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks, and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night fresh and free for the next night’s flagellation.’
By the end of his career Grimaldi could barely perform. In The Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (a book edited by no less than Charles Dickens) we learn that by 1823:
His frame was weak and debilitated, his joints stiff, and his muscles relaxed; every effort he made was followed by cramps and spasms of the most agonizing nature. Men were obliged to be kept waiting at the side-scenes, who caught him in their arms when he staggered from the stage, and supported him, while others chafed his limbs – which was obliged to be incessantly done until he was called for the next scene, or he could not have appeared again. Every time he came off, his sinews were gathered up into huge knots by the cramps that followed his exertions, which could only be reduced by violent rubbing, and even that frequently failed to produce the desired effect. The spectators, who were convulsed with laughter while he was on the stage, little thought that while their applause was resounding through the house, he was suffering the most excruciating and horrible pains.
But if clowns take blows and kicks, they also dish them out. Consider Punch, another iconic figure of the British pantomime. Strictly speaking, Pulcinella (to give Mr Punch his full name) might not be a clown. Nonetheless, he derives from the same trickster mythology – and his act involves almost unspeakable violence.
The following description of Punch playing with his baby comes from an 1832 script of The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy.
What is the matter with it. Poor thing! It has got the stomach ache, I dare say. [Child cries] Hush-a-by, hush-a-by! [sitting down and rolling it on his knees] Naughty child! Judy! [Calling] The child has got the stoamcch ache. Pheu! Nasty child! Judy, I say! [continues to cry] Keep quiet, can’t you! [Hits it a box on the ear]. Oh you filthy child! What have you done! I won’t keep such a nasty child. Hold your tongue! [Strikes the child’s head several times against the side of the stage] There! There! There! How you like that? I thought I stop your squalling. Get along with you, nasty, naughty, crying child. [Throws it over the front of the stage among the spectators] He! He! He! [Laughing and singing the same tune as before.]
It’s hard to imagine any Rob Zombie film depicting the casual murder of a baby for comedic effect. Yet Punch performs for children, who are expected to laugh at his antics.
Bakhtin described the medieval carnival as expressing a temporary liberation from an authoritarian and hierarchical society.
‘[A]ll were considered equal during carnival,’ he says. ‘Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. […] People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations. These truly human relations were not only a fruit of imagination or abstract thought; they were experienced. The Utopian ideal and the realistic merged in this carnival experience, unique of its kind. This temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in everyday life.’
The medieval clown brought that carnival spirit in everyday life.
During the heyday of the anti-corporate rebellion in the late nineties and early 2000s, many people drew on Bakhtinian ideas to describe the ecstatic atmosphere at events like the S11 blockade in Melbourne. It’s not, then, so surprising that the movement also saw a resurgence in political clowning, with, for instance, the emergence of the Biotic Baking Brigade, a group that specialised in pie-ing representatives of the global elite.
The Brigade was, in a sense, violent (many of its members found themselves charged with assault) but their violence was the playful violence of the Big Top. They hurled pies, rather than bombs, in stunts reflective of the anarchic utopianism of the entire movement.
But the global justice activism of that period was brought definitively to an end by the War on Terror, so much so that, sixteen years later, the cheery optimism of S11 seems a sentiment from an entirely different epoch.
Today, with an orange-skinned buffoon with weird hair running for president, we’re plagued by evil clowns. Should we be surprised?
If the anti-corporate slogan ‘another world is possible’ gave rise to radical pie throwing, today’s clowns belong to a period in which political hopes have been so entirely crushed that carnival becomes less utopian and more nihilistic.
Yet it can’t be extinguished so easily.
For what’s the obvious inspiration for the current fad? Surely it stems at least in part from the American band Insane Clown Posse, an outfit that, over the past few decades, has popularised the iconography of evil clowns through its own remarkable subculture.
ICP consists of two white rappers – Violent J (Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joey Utsler) – who, according to Wired, perform ‘some of the most profoundly vile music ever made’.
In the two decades since Bruce and Utsler formed the group, they’ve churned out more than a dozen albums’ worth of gleefully misogynist, cartoonishly violent songs. In ICP’s world, rednecks are carved up and eaten (‘Chicken Huntin’), pedophiles are stabbed in the colon (‘To Catch a Predator’), and STDs get their own anthems (‘Bugz on My Nugz,’ which is performed, in part, in the imagined style of high-pitched venereal crabs).
ICP fans call themselves ‘juggalos’ and, like the band members, wear a version of Joseph Grimaldi’s white face paint. They are, in other words, an army of evil clowns.
In the song ‘What is a juggalo?’, J and Shaggy explain the ICP philosophy:
What is a juggalo?
Let me think for a second
Oh, he gets butt-naked
And then he walks through the streets
Winking at the freaks
With a two-liter stuck in his butt-cheeks
What is a juggalo?
He just don’t care
He might try to put a weave
In his nut hair
Cuz he could give a fuck less
What a bitch thinks
He tell her that her butt stinks
And all that
What is a juggalo?
He drinks like a fish
And then he starts huggin people
Like a drunk bitch
Next thing, he’s pickin fights
With his best friends
Then he starts with the huggin again
What is a juggalo?
A fucking lunatic
Somebody with a rope tied to his dick
Then he jumps out a ten-story window
What is a juggalo?
That’s what it is
Well, fuck, if I know
What is a juggalo?
I don’t know
But I’m down with the clown
And I’m down for life, yo
On face value, it’s a manifesto of misogynistic nihilism, a perfect expression of the violent idiocy of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Yet what’s fascinating about ICP and its fans is the way that their glorification of clownish violence gives rise to its own version of Bakhtinian carnival.
The Wired piece continues:
Despite a sizable population of female fans (dubbed Juggalettes), ICP’s following is made up mostly of young white men from working-class backgrounds. They tend to feel that they’ve been misunderstood outsiders their whole lives, whether for being overweight, looking weird, being poor, or even for just liking ICP in the first place. It’s a world where man boobs are on proud display, where long-hairs and pink-hairs mingle, where nobody makes fun of the fat kid toweling off near Lake Hepatitis. For them, the Gathering is a place they can be accepted, a feeling reinforced by the constant chants of the Juggalo credo “Fam-uh-LEE! Fam-uh-LEE!” “You’re surrounded by people who love you,” says Corey Lewter, a 23-year-old from Algonquin, Illinois. “Even though we’ve never met each other, we all relate.” Adds Nick Wolff, a 20-year-old prep cook from Willowbrook, Illinois, “We’re all family, no matter what race, color, weight, whatever.”
In a recent book, Nathan Rabin writes about his own encounter with the juggalos and what he calls the ‘incongruous sweetness and childlike innocence [of] the world Insane Clown Posse [has] created’. In particular, he contrasts his attendance at, on the one hand, a Donald Trump event and, on the other, the annual ICP ‘Gathering of the Juggalos’.
The thing about Juggalos and Insane Clown Posse is that they don’t want power. They don’t want to be revered. They just want a place at the table. They just want to not be treated like criminals or losers or gang members or degenerates just because of the music that they listen to. They’re asking, really, for very little.
And the opposite is true of Trump supporters. […]It’s populism turned upside down, the boorish, evil representation of white wealth at its most unearned and debauched attacking the poor, immigrants […] It’s not just Trump who’s terrible: He’s liberating and empowering people to be their worst selves, to be racist and greedy and white nationalistic and angry.
In some ways, then, the violent clown fad seems an expression of a deeply cynical period, in which the only way to rebel is through nihilistic memes. But perhaps the desire to get down with the clown also gestures at something else: a very traditional wisdom of the fool.